Tom Gualtieri recaps Mad Men Season 6’s finale and insists that it’s time for everyone to take some responsibility.
The men of Madison Avenue have, for six seasons, appeared more like bad little boys playing with their fathers’ shaving kits. They all look clean and neat after scraping the cream off their faces, but so they were to begin with. The most grown-up of the men, as pointed out by my colleague Stephanie St. John at The Weeklings is Glen, Sally’s childhood friend. Still baby-faced, he maintains a naïveté the other men don’t possess, except maybe for Roger whose quality is more a kind of narcissistic ignorance. Women’s liberation is about to hand the men the responsibility of shaving their own faces with real blades.
The Season 6 finale, “In Care Of,” is about shifting responsibility and if the episode is to be believed, the inventory of responsibility includes:
- Credit where it’s due
Any person sending a package to SC&P (the new firm name decided upon in Episode 10) may have trouble figuring out what to scribble after “c/o.” I’d recommend they mark it “ATTN: Joan Harris.” Like most of the women in the show, Joan has self-control, stamina and integrity. The women have always fared better even when their storylines have suffered. (Thank goodness poor January Jones is out of the fat suit. It felt as if she was serving time for an unknown crime. None of her storylines have approached that one, glorious image at the end of “Shoot,” Season 1, in which where Betty got her Ma Barker moment.) With notable exceptions, the women have had more personal responsibility and less recklessness. Admittedly, stepping into an affair is a tango that takes two but even in their flaws, the women are adults (Margaret’s bratty behavior aside.) It’s disappointing that despite the sacrifice Joan has made for the company, and the responsibility she bears for her choice, she is still treated as a glorified Office Manager.
Like everyone else in the finale, Joan feels the shifting of responsibility, making choices or having choices thrust upon them by family, fate and familiars. Joan allows Roger into young Kevin’s life and Roger, admirably, accepts her offer with seeming grace. Peggy and Ted battle their desires, both willing at some point, to abandon vows personal and public, to be with the other. When Ted reneges on his implied promise, it is at least for the right reason though his condescending speech predicates a burst of clarity for Peggy. Even Sally shirks her legal responsibility when she is summoned to make a statement about the home invasion. Pete is set free of his mother’s care. Being a child himself, Pete was never really able to manage the burden. Trudy looking at Pete like a pitiable boy, puts his future into his hands after Pete’s demented mother goes missing at sea. In one of Mad Men’s consistently kooky turns, at once absurd and moving, Pete assumes that Manolo and Bob have plotted to kill her – again tossing responsibility in someone else’s direction.
Bob, like Don, has no past to speak of, only fragments and clues uncovered by Duck. But does Bob’s ambition make him a murderer? When Bob asks Pete how he’s doing, Vincent Kartheiser’s delivery of “Not great, Bob!” is one of the best moments in the episode. Pete later finds himself in a standard shift car under the glint of Bob and his sociopathic smile. But is Bob’s ingratiating nature merely a cover for his working class upbringing and his homosexuality. In the 60’s, the latter was enough to keep you from the Executive Offices. Bob’s mystery is an absurd cliffhanger drawing us into next season but the real drama is in the intersecting journeys of Don and his former protégé, Peggy.
Throughout “In Care Of,” our anti-hero sees the face of his weakening credibility. His absence from the agency name is driven home by visual cues including the new logo in the elevator bank and on the coffee mugs. Rejections by Betty and Sylvia earlier in the season and Sally in this episode are the mirrors in which Don is forced to see at himself. Betty acknowledges her part in Sally’s suspension from the new school, asking Don to do the same. Just as Don pushed himself out of SC&P, relinquishing responsibility for the new name by noticeable absences from the office, he has separated himself from the raising of his children.
Peggy, called “our career girl” seasons ago by the show’s creators, is no innocent either. She has more than enough moments of bald ambition. (Remember her unsuccessful attempt to seduce Don in Season 1?) In this episode, her kicky miniskirt and bold, pink, empire bow are no accident. Dousing herself with Chanel #5 and stepping boldly into the minefield of a boardroom is a gambit that gets her, at least temporarily, what she thinks she wants. The shocked look on Jim Cutler’s face is priceless and I was reminded of it in Sally’s shocked look at the end of the episode. Wildly different motivations but one of those fascinating parallels Mad Men does so well; a man of Jim’s age can be as shocked as a girl of 15.
Don makes room for Peggy’s advancement by shirking his responsibility at SG&P. The staggering, sentimental idea for Hershey strikes the right note. “The currency of affection.” But he aborts his own success, throwing SG&P under the bus to come clean about his past; something better done at home than in the boardroom, once again, shirking responsibility for personal need and necessitating his forced sabbatical. After that and his larcenous play for Stan’s LA frontier, he unearths some of his buried humanity by giving LA to Ted. But LA becomes a symbol of betrayal and promise for everyone involved: Stan, Ted, Peggy, Don, Ted’s wife Nan and, finally Megan.
I like Jessica Pare. She’s a fine actress and her “Zou Bisou Bisou” couldn’t have been more ridiculous or more wonderful but Megan has been an antidote to the show’s drama. While we may want Don to “settle down” and finally come to some understanding of himself that will put an end to his philandering, the complexity and ambivalence is what keeps us watching.
The genius of Mad Men is that it doesn’t judge its characters; it lets them behave as they may, blankly holding up the viewfinder so that we peer at them through the tinted auras of our own experience. But surely, if we want to series to go on, Don will need to rid himself of Megan for the sake of drama.
Don, for all his sales acumen, has never been a likeable character. It’s Peggy we favor. Those who are blind to Don’s duplicity – the women who get the benefits of his expertise as a lover and the men who get his expertise in the field – don’t know him as well as viewers do. He’s never really had our sympathy, only our interest. His relationship with Peggy, which occasionally puts her in the position of seeming a petulant child, is one of growth and sputter for both; he often treating her cruelly and paternalistically, she demanding his respect by stomping her feet – the surest way to lose his attention. Don’s growth toward integrity and responsibility dulled the show; the happy months with Megan were yawn-makers. What a relief it was when he got back to philandering! Peggy’s growth toward power and the accompanying responsibility is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Don, after all, is depicted as falling through life in a miasma of advertising images.
Peggy should consider herself warned; responsibility is a dangerous game and she could be stepping off a cliff if she rises to the top. Somehow, though, I get the sense Peggy will endure. There’s a sense that she’s landed safely. Nothing beats the vision of Peggy in Don’s chair – a silhouette identical to Don’s image in the opening credit sequence.
As Roger says to Bob, “It’s all fun and games until they shoot you in the face.” When they shoot you in the face, it’s probably a sign to take some responsibility – follow Ken Cosgrove’s lead.
Don is finally brought to the realization that he must re-adopt his real children and his own, wounded inner-child together. The final image of Sally, Bobby and Eugene watching a little black boy eat an ice pop on the dilapidated porch of Don’s childhood home is promising for the character, if not for the drama. Too much resolution makes Don a dull boy but it does justify the use of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (the Judy Collins arrangement) over the end credits.
“Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
Oh but now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day…”
Ready to relive the best moments of Mad Men Season 6? Read all of our recaps and analyses, from great writers like Greg Olear, Matt Norman and Abigail Rine.